Although i have always loved plants, growing up I used to think of common bedding plants like pansies and Johnny jump-ups, a miniature-flowered pansy; petunias; and alyssum as old-fashioned and pedestrian. I was always more attracted to growing structurally exotic plants like cacti and succulents. (I came to Arizona to study those very same “exotic” plants, which happen to be native here, and have never left).
Despite my enthusiasm for botany, when considering what plants were worth the expense of water (a very precious resource here), I decided that they should be edible.
I am older now. Having spent many years working in plant nurseries and gardens, I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that when I go through the local nursery in September and smell the rich honey scent of alyssum, it does that thing—it hits me right in the gut. It’s fall, and I love it. I realize that I’ve missed those goofy little Johnny jump-ups. I remember how lovely snapdragons and stock can be with their Impressionist spikes of uncool pastel colors. I even love seeing what new varieties are coming out each year.
I also no longer think of those bedding plants as a waste of water, or as old fashioned or pedestrian. At least, when they are used intelligently. They serve as a reminder, along with all that’s happening out in the desert, that fall is here. And heck, the pansies are edible and the alyssum is great for pollinators, attracting lots of beneficial insects. They partner well with the edible plants I am about to plant. And they’re pretty. And that has value.
I am not forgetting about water. These sorts of plants, in my yard, are kept to the edible vegetable and herb garden, or in pots. And I apply the same water-saving methods (mulching, deeper watering, organic feeding) that I apply to the edible plants. I still plant native annuals and perennials over exotic bedding plants. But now I also indulge in the plants of my personal history.
Finally, finally, finally, we get a break in September and October. We get crisp-aired mornings. However hot it might remain at noon, winter sometimes reaches its arms into the fall, and with more than just cooler temperatures. Winter might just throttle your garden with a cold snap, so be prepared with your winter frost strategy. Have cloth coverings ready for plants you cannot move inside or to a safer spot in the yard, which will insulate the plants from frost. Plastic only works if the surface is not touching the plant through the use of a frame.
Taking advantage of microclimates is another good frost-protection strategy. South-facing walls that receive sun all day create helpful microclimates for your more tender plants because, in the evening, they release heat that has been collecting all day. East-facing walls that aren’t shaded by a tree or another structure also work as they’re the first to receive the sun in the morning. And it is also helpful to know that the most extreme part of a frosty night in a dry climate is just before the sun peeks over the horizon. That is when the most damage happens.
But hey, this may be only a night or two in the next few months, maybe a few more in the higher elevations of our region. The fall is the second most gorgeous time in the garden (the most gorgeous goes to the spring). Most years, gardens look reinvigorated by fall. They lush up. And gardens get more attention because you want to be there. Spend your weekend in the yard. Get your grill out and grill up the last of the peppers and squash and eggplant before you yank those plants up to make room for cool-season crops.
If a crop is still giving you something you really want, keep it. You might have a tomato that just keeps giving you delicious tomatoes until the frost knocks it out. But that squash plant might start to slow down its production. Or maybe you (and everyone you know) are totally tired of Armenian cucumbers. Pull those plants up and freshen up those beds with some manure and compost (either from your own compost pile or purchased at the nursery). Let’s face it: You were probably waiting to pull some of those plants out until it cooled off. It’s beautiful outside right now, especially in the morning. Get your butt out into the garden and start working that soil.
The best way to know what there is to grow is to do your homework. Of course, this is the sort of homework that is a pleasure. Order catalogs and familiarize yourself with the varieties available, new and old. Go to reputable nurseries regularly and walk the aisles. Grab the attention of a nursery employee and have them show you around. Often, they love to gab about plants and show you the gems. There are too many things to grow to list in a print magazine or even a book. Go explore.
Visit any one of our local nurseries for plants, as they are most sensitive to what is in season and good for our area.
In Tucson there are several excellent local nurseries (they’re worth a trip even if you don’t live here): Mesquite Valley Growers, Rillito Nursery, Civano Nursery, Silverbell Nursery, Magic Garden, Harlow Gardens, Green Things, and Desert Survivors. Diamond JK Nursery in Sonoita is first-class too. Many vendors sell starts at farmers’ markets (you can find some real gems there).
We have two local seed companies in Tucson. You can visit them online or in town. Native Seeds/SEARCH has a retail shop on Campbell. Westwind Seeds can be found at various farmers’ markets, such as the Heirloom Farmers’ Market on Sunday at Rillito Park.
Other nonlocal companies offer quality seed: Seed Savers Exchange, Baker’s Creek, Kitazawa Seed Company, Seeds from Italy, Southern Exposure, Terroir Seeds, The Cook’s Garden.
Not everyone has a yard to garden in. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy gardening. If you have a patio with sunlight, you can grow most plants in a container. The bigger the container, the better your plants will grow. You can also join a local community garden. Visit Community Gardens of Tucson to find out if there is one near you at CommunityGardensofTucson.org. Consider volunteering at Mission Gardens, a living agricultural museum of Sonoran Desert-adapted heritage fruit trees, traditional local heirloom crops, and edible native plants.
In most areas of Baja Arizona you can plant through most of the winter, although in the cooler regions of our area, frost is harder on some crops. When it gets really cold, some seeds may take longer to germinate. But even in the coldest parts of our area, there is always something you can grow.
ROOT VEGETABLES: Most root vegetables don’t need rich soil, but they do like it loose and well-drained. Some come up quickly and in abundance others take time to develop but are worth the trouble. Don’t forget many root crops make tasty greens too: carrots, beets, radishes, parsnips, turnips, root chicory, burdock, parsley root, celeriac, chicory root, salsify, scorzonera, and rutabagas.
GREENS: Plant a diversity of greens. Plant them thickly and thin out as they develop into full heads. Save the seedlings you thin as microgreens for your daily salad: lettuce, arugula, mache, orach, cress (there are many types), miner’s lettuce, nasturtiums, spinach, chard, the leaf chicories (radicchio, escarole, endive, puntarelle, frisée), Asian greens (bok choy, Chinese mustard, stem lettuce, tatsoi, napa cabbage, mizuna and mibuna, garland greens), sorrel, celery.
COLE CROPS: You might not know that most cole crops all belong to the same species, Brassica oleracea. But the diversity in flavor and texture is amazing. Most of these plants need room to develop, so give them space: cabbage, broccoli and rapini, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collards, kohlrabi.
ALLIUMS: No household should be without some sort of onion or garlic. And there is such a variety to grow. With most alliums you can get sets (dried bulbs) or starts (small green bulbs usually sold in wrapped bunches). Some types of multiplier (spreading) or perennial alliums may be found potted and need a more permanent spot in your garden. You can start some from seed in late July or August for planting in September. All are available online or at your local plant nursery: onions, shallots, garlic, elephant garlic, leeks, Egyptian walking onion, chives, Chinese chives (a different species from regular chives), rakkyo onions, bunching onions.
LEGUMES: Many beans are summer growers but a few love the cool season. All encourage healthy biology in the soil. Avoid planting next to root crops (the increase in nitrogen that legumes encourage discourages root development in root crops): garbanzo, fava, lentil, peas. Peas are also available in varieties that are used as greens. That is, you snip off the tips of shoots to eat raw or cooked. Delicious!
OTHER VEGETABLES: Artichokes and cardoon can be planted now (leaves may be damaged from frost, but if you cover them, they will be fine for a nice spring yield). Asparagus is generally available now as crowns. Give them a permanent spot and wait at least a year and a half before you take any spears that arise in spring. They need their own bed.
COOL–SEASON & PERENNIAL HERBS: Herbs are pungent in scent and flavor. And our strongest memories are tied to the sense of smell. Bring the best flavors into the garden with your herbs. Annual herbs will grow until they bolt (go to flower or seed). Plant new successions as they flower: parsley, dill, cilantro, chervil, fennel, borage, salad burnet, caraway, anise, lovage.
Perennial herbs grow year round. Planting them in the fall gives them time to develop a strong root system before next summer. Give them room and know that where you put them is permanent. Spreading herbs like mint and oregano are best in pots because they can take over the whole garden bed. Some may slow down during the coolest part of winter: mint, oregano and marjoram, thyme, rosemary, sage, savory, rue, santolina.
LARGER CROPS: Start plants that will be in a permanent spot in the fall to give the root system a chance to develop before the stress of summer.
FRUIT TREES: Citrus of all types are good to plant right now. Most will need frost protection when the temperatures dip below 30 degrees. Be very careful not to let the root ball (the matrix of roots and soil that is in the container) fall apart when planting. Citrus do not like to have their roots disturbed.
OTHER FRUIT AND NUT CROPS: You can plant desert-adapted varieties of apple, peach, apricot, plum, almond, pecan, pluot, fig, quince, grapes, and more. Pay attention to how many chill hours some of these trees may need. There should be a label on the tree; the best nurseries have staff that can tell you what kinds of trees are best for your area as well as the advantages of some varieties over others.
NATIVE CROPS: Don’t forget, especially if you have room, that there are lots of edible shrubs and trees native to Baja Arizona. And like the non-natives, they love to be planted in fall. Mesquite, ironwood, palo verde, jojoba, cholla, prickly pear, native oaks—attend any of the many workshops on native plants use offered this time of year to learn how to prepare our native crops. See our calendar page for a list of classes.
Easy to grow, this multiplier onion can be planted now in most parts of Baja Arizona and left to multiply and spread. Plants respond to moisture in both the warm and cool season and have more of a perennial habit than larger, bulb-forming onions. They also are prolific; once they get going, you will have all you need. Be sure to lift plants every once in a while, divide, and harvest. Save some for replanting and eat the rest. They grow in full sun with few problems but can also take part shade. Plants may go dormant for a short spell in summer, or in the coldest part of the winter in the colder parts of our region.
Individual bulbs will not get much larger than a shallot. Use the foliage, like chives, which are best harvested while plants are actively growing.
Mizuna has become a very popular plant. Finely textured and delicate but peppery, plants have feathery leaves up to 10 inches long; the rosettes (heads) can grow to about 18 to 20 inches wide. Mibuna is lesser known, with a slightly stronger flavor and rounded leaves. Plants grow to about one foot high, producing tight clusters of long, narrow leaves. It is very easy to grow and can be cut four or five times; the new growth is more resistant to frost and cold.
Both plants can be enjoyed raw in salads or lightly cooked and seasoned. The leaves are also excellent for pickling. Mizuna and mibuna love the winter in most of Baja Arizona. Grow in an open, sunny position. If subjected to dry conditions, growth may appear stunted and plants will bolt prematurely. Soil should be moist—improve with well-rotted organic matter before sowing and planting.
Water well, before the onset of drought. There is a risk of bolting in very hot dry conditions (when summer approaches). Plant in successions: as your first planting starts to mature, plant a new row to take its place so you have a steady supply of fresh plants.
It’s time to get creative. Frost is upon us. We aren’t always sure when. Sometimes it comes early and sometimes it comes late—whenever it arrives, it’s time to harvest the abundance your garden has produced. You can learn how to preserve your food through canning, drying, freezing, pickling, or storing—or you can just share your bounty with family, friends, or coworkers.
Basil is such an easy crop to grow. If you have been diligent about pinching off the flowers and steadily watering and feeding, you may have more basil than it seems can be used. One method of preserving basil is making a ton of pesto and freezing it in several small plastic bags.
Pesto is good on almost any food. Use it slathered on baked salmon; add for flavoring in your spaghetti sauce; or spread it on bread and make tomato sandwiches with fresh mozzarella.
There are many recipes and permutations, but pesto is generally made of some ratio of macerated basil leaves, olive oil, some kind of nut, salt, some kind of dry cheese like Parmesan and garlic. While the traditional way to make pesto was with a mortar and pestle (hence, the name), you can also use a food processor or blender. The nuts can vary: pine nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, and pecans. You will have to experiment to discover what ratio is best for you. Many like a heavy garlic flavor while others prefer a more dominant basil flavor. Some prefer a lot of salt, others less. Search online or in your favorite cookbooks for a recipe. Pesto stores for about a year if sealed well.
Nothing says fall like the smell of roasting chiles. Roasting brings out the sweet and savory flavors of chiles while muting the bitter overtones. Once roasted, you can store them in the freezer to use whenever needed. Add roasted chiles to any Mexican dish instead of the canned chiles usually called for in recipes.
Select the long, horn-shaped varieties like Anaheim, Hatch, poblano, New Mexico, or chilaca. You can roast them in the oven (use the broil setting) or on a settled but hot grill. Roast until the skins are blackened and blistered on both sides and immediately put into a closed paper bag (this steams and loosens the skin). When cool enough to handle, the skins should be easy to peel and discard. Store by freezing in small plastic bags. They can store for about a year in the freezer.
A few precautions: some chiles are hotter than others, but you should always be mindful of what you do with your hands after handling chiles. Wear gloves while preparing them, or just wash your hands thoroughly and immediately after handling. Be aware that roasting chiles can sometimes cause coughing, as the capsicum in the air can irritate the throat and lungs. Open the windows when roasting inside, and if roasting outside, don’t hover over them.
Jared McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona.